Can outside forces control and change human nature? Today, theories of technological manipulation and unregulated government surveillance are accepted widely by the mainstream. Many believe the government secretly watches people through cameras in computers or smartphones without permission and uses recording devices to track people’s activity. These theories and others like them, however, have existed since the Second World War, when rapid advancements in technology and government drastically changed the lives of the majority. 1984, one of the first novels to expand on these ideas was written at the end of the war to express concerns about the rise of certain political parties and the dangers new technology could pose if put in the wrong hands. In the novel 1984, by George Orwell, extreme government control through terror and psychological manipulation denies people their individuality and humanity.
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The Party controls everything in Oceania; telescreens watch people’s every move, while posters of their omniscient leader Big Brother loom over them. Winston Smith, a lower-level member of the Party, wishes to escape the Party’s rigid control and oppression by writing an illegal diary to a powerful, possibly anti-Party man named O’Brien. Winston, who works altering historical records for the needs of the Party using Newspeak, the Party’s developing language, receives a note from a beautiful coworker named Julia, saying that she loves him. Julia and Winston begin a secret affair, avoiding the watchful eye of Big Brother by renting a room above the store where Winston purchased his diary. Eventually, Winston and Julia meet with O’Brien, who confirms Winston’s suspicions of being a member of the Brotherhood, a group who wishes to overthrow the Party, which he wants Winston and Julia to join. When they return to their rented room after the meeting, soldiers seize Winston and Julia, who Mr. Charrington, the owner of the store and secret member of the Thought Police, summoned. When Winston arrives at the Ministry of Love for interrogation, O’Brien reveals he pretended to be a member of the Brotherhood in order to trap Winston. O’Brien tortures and brainwashes Winston for months before sending him to Room 101 where Winston must confront his worst fear, rats; however, Winston snaps and wants Julia to take his place instead. O’Brien wanted Winston to betray Julia all along, and releases Winston, who no longer feels anything for Julia, and accepts the Party along with his love for Big Brother.
The film, for the most part, stays true to the plot of the novel. However, the reason for his fear of rats, plus the impact of the Aaronsen, Rutherford, and Jones photograph differs quite noticeably from the original narrative. The film implies that Winston’s fear of rats comes from him seeing the creatures consume his deceased mother, but in the novel, Winston claims to have not seen his mother since his early childhood and “to this day he [does] not know with any certainty that [she is] dead” (Orwell 163). The author never explains why or where Winston’s fear of rats stems from, yet one can infer that his fear of rats represents his psychological fear of becoming like the Party. Rats symbolize death, poverty, and betrayal, all of which the Party excels in; however, it is betrayal that Winston finds the most evil and intimidating. Winston’s betrayal of others like Julia in Room 101, and his self-betrayal in succumbing to the Party’s ideologies magnifies how often the Party uses betrayal to remain in power. Furthermore, the photograph of Aaronsen, Rutherford, and Jones, which the film briefly mentions, serves as a perfect example of this. The photograph justifies Winston’s opposition to the Party, proving the innocence of the men and the Party’s false claims about and manipulation of the past. Though “the Party told [Winston] to reject the evidence of [his] eyes and ears, …they were wrong and he was right” (Orwell 81). Winston could not, however, prevent the Party from manipulating the one thing he had left–his innate, private thoughts and feelings.
As previously mentioned, the Party controls everything in Oceania, including the right to think and express oneself freely, which both the film and novel emphasize greatly. Telescreens blast propaganda and constantly monitor people’s activity; posters of Big Brother serve as a constant reminder of the Party’s presence, and children of spy on family members in hopes of reporting disloyalty. “When once [people] were in the grip of the Party, what [they] felt or did not feel, what [they] did or refrained from doing, made literally no difference; fears surrounding constant observation left citizens no choice but to fully trust and become one with the Party (Orwell 164-165). Furthermore, the collective identity that the Party hopes to achieve through this surveillance prevents any sort of individualism, something Winston in particular strives for. The Party’s constant manipulation of history and destruction of historical evidence has made it almost impossible for one to establish the basis for their identity. This is true for Winston, who does not know his age or marital status, and cannot rely on his childhood memories due to a lack of evidence. Mentally, Winston can distinguish himself by insisting that his memory contains the truth and by pledging loyalty to one thing only–Julia. The Party’s betrayal of Winston’s mind forced him to not only betray the one thing he loves, but also to destroy any aspects of individuality or freedom he had left. The Party achieved it’s goal; “they could get inside [him]…[and] there were things, [his] own acts, from which [he] could never recover. Something was killed in [his] breast, burnt out, cauterized out” (Orwell 290).
The Party in George Orwell’s 1984 controls a fear-driven population through surveillance, propaganda, and the eradication of independent thought. The constant threat of psychological torture, along with manipulation of the past, has left the citizens of Oceania without any other choice but to devote themselves entirely to the Party. Even for those who try to quietly rebel, like Winston Smith, the Party prevents this from happening by invading people’s private thoughts and torturing them until they become accepting of Big Brother and all his philosophies. Themes of betrayal, psychological control, and individualism run through out the novel and are connected by the Party’s desire to stay completely in power. One must betray what they love in order to pledge full loyalty to the Party and become completely dependent on their ideas and not one’s own. Thus, if advanced enough, outside forces can control and manipulate human nature into a submissive state to remain powerful and dominant.
- 1984. Directed by Michael Radford, 1985.
- Orwell, George. 1984. New American Library, 1977.
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